Raymond Sokolov

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Sokolov, Raymond

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sokolov, Raymond 1941–

Sokolov is an American novelist and a journalist with a diversity of specialties. Native Intelligence is his first novel.

The ideas [in "Native Intelligence"] sparkle and zip around at the speed of light, but the action can't keep pace with the author's imagination, and sometimes seems arbitrary and unconvincing.

This is not to say "Native Intelligence" isn't entertaining and frequently funny. Much as one wishes Raymond Sokolov had integrated his insights with the rest of the material, the book is an appealing parody of a certain jejune liberalism and a barbed perception of our national naiveté. (p. 45)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1975.

The tragicomic hero of "Native Intelligence" is a linguistic genius, Harvard '63, who volunteers for the Peace Corps and is shipped to Qatab, the least-populated nation in Latin America. There he voyages up the Mashmish River to improve sanitation among the Stone Age Xixi tribe. Alan Casper is romantic and idealistic; his government is more practical….

Raymond Sokolov's spry and elegant first novel is filled with put-ons—including a mind-crunching crossword puzzle of his brainy hero's devising and an arresting view of the televised mourning for John F. Kennedy as a tribal rite. With a happy excess of imaginative energy—like a medieval craftsman carving gargoyles his fellow-townsmen at ground level will never notice—Sokolov has invented not only a complex matrilinear social structure for his Xixis but a mythology, a grammar and a 500-word vocabulary, which does not fail to contain the Xixi terms for "threaten to cloud over," "wink or blink frequently" and "bird louse."

I particularly admire the offhand poise with which Sokolov invites us to zip through his book as a colonial farce à la Waugh, an exotic Rider Haggard adventure tale (there is a dazzling jaguar hunt, with blowguns for weapons) or as a do-it-yourself novel kit….

If you care to listen more closely, this journey of a super-literate into a preliterate world is a meditation on the failure of tongues. In delirium, veering between English and Xixi toward the end of the book, Alan puts it thus: "The point … is not culture versus nature but culture versus culture…. They both have their own culture, but they have no common language, and so they misunderstand each other." Sokolov's word games, leg-pulls and exuberantly detailed fantasies turn gravely affecting.

Walter Clemons, "Up the Mashmish," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1975; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1975, p. 94.

What carries the narrative along and gives [Native Intelligence] its remarkable buoyancy, is Sokolov's ability to parody almost everything that falls within his sight: modern-day anthropology, official government documents, linguistic studies of obscure languages, traditional folk tales of exotic people, even gourmet recipes. Lest readers think that I am making all of this up, it should be clarified that Sokolov has been a foreign correspondent, a journalist, a writer of food columns for The New York Times. All of his previous interests have spilled into his novel—a kind of parodic collage of Sokolov's earlier writing. There is throughout the story, for example, the ubiquitous presence of mouth-watering, yet anachronistic, meals served in the strangest places; and a crossword puzzle strategically placed at the middle of the narrative, intended for the reader to complete….

The craziest thing in Native Intelligence, however, is Sokolov's put-down of anthropology-cum-structural-linguistics-a-la-Levi Strauss. In the longest section of the novel, called "Totemism Today," there is an absolutely uproarious account of tribal initiation rites—an obvious parody of Tristes Tropiques with some Carlos Castaneda thrown in. There is also a several-thousand word glossary of supposed Xixi words appended to the back of the book, as well as journals, letters,...

(The entire section is 1,843 words.)